One of my friends is this beautiful, dramatic, existentially-tormented artist. She has two small children who look exactly like her and make a lot of noise. She’s sturdy, freckled and African and always does the gardening in her bare feet. She rolls her Rs magnificently and pronounces Cadbury Cadbaaaaaaary. She loves Elizabeth Taylor, fresh seafood and anything rose-scented. When I’m with her I feel really calm because she is so expressive and passionate that I can just sort of…bask in her glow. It’s as though her very being is a mouthpiece for all of my pent-up emotions. When she prays she does so with passion and sometimes shouts at God while tears pour down her face. Her house is full of strays (animal and human) and other people’s children. She’s one of the only people in the world who can tell me what to do and not only will it not irritate me, but I’ll probably do just as she says, too. And although I could write her a long love-letter here, this post is not actually about her, but about something that she has taught me by her life and which I feel I am slowly coming around to learning.
Christians as a whole have this tendency to slip into a kind of ill-aware Gnosticism. Gnosticism, if I can be reductionist, is essentially the belief that the body is bad and the soul is good, and that we can find our salvation in the mortification of the body. The body is seen as a kind of prison for the soul. (I can relate to this idea; having eating distress has meant that I have had a very broken relationship to my body, often wishing fervently for an existence that was not embodied.) This is a profoundly wrong-headed view for a Christian. It is because the body is good that it ought to be honoured and treated with gentle respect. And flowing from this pervasive yet unconscious Gnosticism comes a kind of rejection of nature itself, for fear that loving the natural world is a kind of paganism or even pantheism (pantheism being the belief that God dwells in all created matter). This is yet more nonsense, and my beautiful artist friend has taught me this.
As human beings, we have a natural connection to matter; to the stuff and substance of the earth. We are revived by wind – bracing walks that blow away the cobwebs of our minds. We are refreshed by oceans and lakes – even when we don’t swim in them – just being near can be enough. We are soothed by fire – we literally curl up beside it, soaking in its warmth, or leaping to cook on open flames at the merest sign of a dry day. We are nourished by the earth, both literally and figuratively – think lying on the grass in blazing sunlight or eating new potatoes with salt and butter or crisp salad leaves with lemon and oil.
Somehow I have become separated from these things, and I know I am not alone. I tend to stay out of weather. I swim in the local chlorine-filled pool. I flick a switch to heat my house when I can’t be bothered with laying the fire. My garden is comically overgrown as I avoid tending to it. I live a kind of ‘sterile’ existence…perhaps ‘synthetic’ is more apt. My home tends to be more of a laboratory environment than a sanctuary (well, an untidy laboratory). And I am unsatisfied. It is important for both body and soul to connect with the earth from which we come. The staggering poetry of the book of Genesis speaks of the Lord God forming Adam from the dust of the ground and breathing into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man becoming a living being. Earth and air are where we come from, and water keeps us alive. Science describes for us our life journey during the Silurian and Devonian periods many millions of years ago from the oceans onto the land. And fire – fire is essential to keeping us alive – what else is the sun other than a ball of fire in the sky? Why do we spend so much time, Christians or not, in spaces that create a disconnect from our source? It seems to me to be essential to our common humanity that we live lives that treasure our connection to the earth. Why do we enclose ourselves eight hours a day in cubicles surrounded by noisy, hot machines in buildings where we cannot open the goddamn windows?
And although these are not things that my beautiful artist friend has articulated in so many words, I believe that this is why her perfumes are made from flowers; this is why she digs potatoes with her toes deep in the wet clay of her suburban Irish garden and that her clothes are made of cotton or wool or silk. I admire her determined connection to the earth, albeit a far cry from the wild plains and pools of her African childhood, and as I begin by reconnecting with my own dust, with the very flesh and bones of my own body, I look forward to learning to reconnect with the sources of my being: the earth from whence I came.